Behind The Wall Of Death

July 19 2010, 5:23 AM EDT By Dan Slessor

The Wall of Death (noun): The act of dividing an audience down the middle and then commanding them to charge at each other across the gap Braveheart-style, usually at a pivotal moment in a song. The result is a high-speed collision of bodies that makes regular moshing seem almost quaint. It’s exciting, it can be dangerous, and on this year’s Warped Tour, it’s the perfect accompaniment to the extreme sonic violence meted out by the breakout bands dominating the festival lovingly nicknamed “Punk-Rock Summer Camp.”

This year, shredders Whitechapel and Suicide Silence are along for the ride, bringing with them an extreme form of metal that isn’t only turning heads, but inspiring many of them to start headbanging for the very first time. What sets these bands apart from both the other bands on the tour and the metal subgenres that have previously risen to prominence (like nü metal and metalcore) is the unflinching, uncompromising brutality of the music and artists’ point blank refusal to sanitize their sounds in the hope of drawing a wider fan base. “We’re not chipper, super happy people, so we’re not gonna make music like that,” says Suicide Silence vocalist Mitch Lucker—a man whose imposing onstage demeanor perfectly matches the band’s sledgehammer heavy and eerily disconcerting sounds. “We make music that’s gonna start a riot, music that’s gonna make you go crazy. That’s what we’re doing every single day on [Warped].”

Bred primarily from death metal, a genre that has existed in the underground since the mid ’80s, this new wave of extreme music favors inhuman screams, shrieks and guttural grunts over anything that could be described as “melodic” or “clean” vocals, and bands pound anyone in the vicinity with seething volleys of blastbeats, chugging riffs and the kind of breakdowns that could dent concrete. Oh, and they make metal bands like Slipknot seem like a bunch of 10-year-olds throwing mild hissy fits.

"The tag ‘deathcore’ gets thrown at us a lot,” says Whitechapel guitarist Alex Wade. “But as far as we’re concerned, we’re a bunch of normal dudes from Knoxville, Tennessee, who play heavy metal. That’s it.” Wade affirms that his band’s bludgeoning, three-guitar sound is part of a groundswell appealing to more and more young fans. “We just try to write the heaviest, darkest, most brutal metal we can and kids are drawn to that because they’re sick of listening to the same regurgitated teeny-pop over and over again,” he says. “It’s weird looking out into the crowd and seeing 15-year-old girls screaming along to our songs, but that’s happening every day out here. It’s been insane.”

While the pejorative deathcore banner is rejected by just about every band it’s thrown at (in much of the same way the designations of emo and metalcore have become stigmatized in certain circles), there’s certainly a new movement of heavy bands linked by their extremity. It’s fair to say that such pigeonholing belies the hugely varied approaches of bands currently attempting to separate your vertebrae for you, since this niche of extreme metal is at the core of some of the most innovative, involved and heartfelt music around right now.

Alongside Suicide Silence and Whitechapel, this loose collective also includes Glendale, Arizona’s Job For A Cowboy and San Diego’s Carnifex, both of whom embrace the volatile sonic conventions of “traditional” death metal in the vein of Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse while bringing the music up to date in their own unique and exhilarating ways. There’s also Montreal’s Beneath The Massacre and Ion Dissonance, whose spastic aural storms are dominated by salvos of polyrhythmic percussion and mind-bogglingly technical fretwork, delivering songs charged with labyrinthine complexity and seething, unrepentant anger. Then there are the nightmarish sounds of the Acacia Strain from Chicopee, Massachusetts, who reject the “Massachusetts metalcore sound” popularized by Killswitch Engage and All That Remains in favor of sludgy, discordant and downright ugly aural attacks that are genuinely unsettling. While most of these bands and dozens more have already built themselves dedicated armies of followers among the metal-loving masses, it seems clear that now is their time. The reaction on this summer’s Warped Tour conveys that these bands aren’t going to be staying so underground much longer.

So what’s the attraction? One aspect is certainly the lyrical content, which (while often is hard to discern without a lyric sheet due to its enraged delivery) speaks to the malaise affecting contemporary society, moving away from gore-soaked and supernatural imagery traditionally associated with death metal and providing something listeners can relate to. Another appeal is that it’s ostensibly an “image-free” movement, with no unifying look shared among the bands—other than a predilection for black garments and tattoos. This ambiguity opens the genre to listeners from all different backgrounds to associate themselves with the performers, cementing their connection.

According to Craig Ericson, founder of Rise Records, home to Those Who Lie Beneath, the Red Shore and American Me as well as screamo crew Of Mice & Men, it all comes down to a primal urge among fans to prove their worth through physicality. “Kids have always liked heavy music, and they like to get rowdy and show off how tough they are to their girlfriends, although there’s an increasing number of girls listening to this music, too,” he says. “It’s almost the soundtrack to this modern gladiator stuff. It’s like, ‘Who’s the toughest dude in the pit?’” Vincent Bennett, towering vocalist for the Acacia Strain says the music simply provides an impetus for catharsis. “People are angry, but they’re afraid to show it,” he says. “We bring that anger and aggression out.” Suicide Silence’s Lucker agrees that they offer the disillusioned an outlet. “Look at the way these poor kids are manipulated by the media and forced to see how fucked up everything is in the news every day,” he says. “They can’t do shit about it. It causes pain for them, and people want something that’s aggressive and full-on and fucking real. They want to get angry and let that shit out, and so they come to see us and they get to do that.”

The fact that such blatantly non-commercial music is edging its way into the mainstream is difficult to argue with. Even before Warped Tour, Whitechapel sold close to 11,000 copies of their third full-length, A New Era Of Corruption, in its first week of release and landed at No. 43 on the Billboard Top 200. Eric Rushing, owner of the band’s management agency, the Artery Foundation, was as surprised at the success as anyone. “You don’t see bands like this selling 10,000 albums the first week,” he says. “That just doesn’t happen. I think much of this music is still very much underground, and every once in awhile, you’ll have a band or two who break out of their genre, who open the door for a whole new generation of bands. Whitechapel are definitely one of them. I think this is the beginning of a whole new phenomenon.”

One of the reasons this music has remained underground so long is essentially due to the fact that it doesn’t get major radio play and it was never on MTV outside of maybe the metal-heavy Headbanger’s Ball. While the internet is certainly changing the way people discover music, Lucker thinks it’s time for the traditional outlets to get their heads in the game. “Metal is one of the biggest sounds in music right now,” he says. “It’s stupid that radio stations aren’t picking it up and playing it, because there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of kids in every fucking city listening to it, loving it, and fucking worshipping it. XM [Radio] and Sirius play it, and they have the two biggest followings of listeners because they’re the only two places you can go to listen to metal radio.”

Regardless of whether such extreme music is embraced by program directors, Whitechapel and Suicide Silence will be walking away from this summer with swollen fanbases. “I can definitely say this has been the best tour that we’ve ever done,” says Whitechapel’s Wade. “We’re definitely grateful to be on it, and it’s been huge exposure for us. We’ve had 6,000 or 7,000 kids see us play some days, and so many different kinds of people have been coming up to the signing tent and telling us how much they loved our set. It’s awesome to see people embracing metal.” alt

Though the Wall Of Death has its roots planted in the ’80s hardcore scene, most acknowledge stalwarts Sick Of It All as the cause of the act’s recent resurgence. “No one really started it, it was something that just used to happen spontaneously at shows,” says SOIA vocalist Lou Koller. “It kind of faded out for a while, but in the mid-’90s, we were playing a big festival in Holland, and I wanted people to remember us, so I got the crowd to split [by] referencing the movie Braveheart. They really got it, and they had no hesitation running face-first into each other. After that, bands who toured with us would see it, and then they started doing it, too. Now it’s kind of everywhere. Maybe it’s a primal-warrior gene that needs satisfying, or maybe just the ultimate game of Red Rover.”

A staple of both Whitechapel and Suicide Silence’s sets on Warped, Wade is amused that a Wall Of Death is now expected of them and they face criticism if they don’t incite one. “People get mad at us,” he says. “They come up to us afterward and are like, ‘Dude, why no Wall Of Death?’” Lucker thinks it’s actually contributed to the powerful draw to their show for those unfamiliar with them. “We started out doing it on this tour, and everyone’s like, ‘What the fuck is this? It’s nuts!’ But then as the tour goes on, people are hearing about this thing and people are saying, ‘Go see Suicide Silence. They do the Wall Of Death and it’s fucking crazy.’ It is. It’s heavy fucking music, and it’s a heavy fucking response to it.”